As Zoey de Domenico, Psy.D. ’18, entered her last year of undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University, she weighed her options between pursuing a career in psychology versus a steady and promising job she already held at Earls Restaurants.
She decided to pursue psychology, which she’d fallen in love with in high school, and enrolled at Adler University. She liked that its new Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology program was close to her home in British Columbia, but more specifically that it allowed her to use and consume research in a clinical practice and to practice psychology in the context of Adler University’s social justice philosophy.
“One of the things that sets it apart from other schools,” she said, “is challenging the status quo and being really critical of humming along and doing what everybody does in this Western medical model that we use to treat our clients.”
In October 2018, de Domenico was among the first group of students in Adler University’s Psy.D. program to graduate from the Vancouver Campus.
De Domenico said she didn’t truly appreciate the University’s focus on community until she started the program. In addition to receiving an educational foundation of assessment and therapy, she said she also gained skills in thinking critically about the development and practice of psychology in today’s world, realizing “how it fits into the larger social context and systems we are all a part of—which is unique to Adler training.”
Adler University created the Psy.D. program in Vancouver five years ago to train students to be expert clinicians and socially responsible practitioners who are equipped to bring about positive change in communities that need it most. University President Raymond E. Crossman, Ph.D., points out that the program is the first of its kind in Western Canada. “Canada needs more psychologists, and we’re here to help.”
While other programs in the country focus on research, Adler’s Psy.D. program is the only one to offer scholar-practitioner psychology doctoral training, providing close mentoring around practitioner training. “The entirety of the program is focused on making the student an excellent clinician,” Crossman said. “In our program, we teach application of knowledge, theory, and science to inform practice.”
The students wrote dissertations on some of the key social problems facing Canada today, and in 2017-18, their final year in the program, they engaged in clinical internships where they honed critical skills they’ll need to succeed professionally after graduation. De Domenico, whose dissertation was on the mental health and stigma challenges of criminal offenders reintegrating into the community, interned at Correctional Service Canada in Ontario.
“I am really drawn to that population,” de Domenico said. “They’re a high-need, underserved group. There’s a lot of stigma associated with them. The way we treat the people in our society who do things we don’t like says a lot about who we are and how we manage those problems. I think we’re all responsible for the problems in the system and the environment that makes crime and causing people harm happen.”
As part of her internship, de Domenico facilitated dialectic behavioral therapy-informed skills groups for emotional regulation for her incarcerated clients, which she said was a rewarding experience. “The clients responded so well to it. I heard over and over again, ‘This is something I wish I had learned when I was a kid. If I had managed my emotions earlier on, I never would have ended up here.”
Geris Serran, CPsych., director of clinical training for Correctional Services Canada, said the internship provided a variety of experiences with a culturally diverse range of clients who have experienced trauma or substance abuse or who exhibit aggressive attitudes. “It’s a really rich environment to learn a lot, to be able to use your clinical skills and be able to deal with almost any mental health issue that is out there.” Serran said Adler University’s influence was evident in de Domenico’s enthusiasm. “We loved having Zoey. She was quite open to learning, and I’m sure that that is something that the school has contributed to. She had a really positive personality and a lot of enthusiasm for her development, so that speaks to the students who are coming forward.”
Adler University interns also worked with patients in chronic pain at St. Joseph’s Hospital (part of the Northern Ontario Psychology Internship Consortium in Thunder Bay, Ontario), providing psychological assessments and therapy. The students’ internship experience, said St. Joseph’s director of training, Sara Hagstrom, CPsych, is the bridge between school and practice. “It’s that final shift from being a student doing some practicum placement or little concentrated experiences to being a full-time employee. They’re paid. They come to work full time. They’re learning the aspect of professional practice of further honing their skills from a therapeutic or assessment standpoint.”
The students served as trailblazers, establishing the culture of the program where none existed before, de Domenico said. In addition to their responsibilities in the classroom, she said the group needed to figure out how to work together and demonstrate how the Psy.D. approach could fit into the broader therapeutic context in the country. “There are only three Psy.D. programs in all of Canada, and there tends to be a much more traditional psychology teaching model in Canada.”
Being first turned out to be a bonding experience for her cohort.
De Domenico said that connecting with her peers was as big a part of her educational experience as was anything she learned throughout coursework, lecture material, or textbooks.
“With my cohort, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of background and experience and culture, and I feel like I learned so much from being around these different perspectives.”
The secure environment that the connections created, she said, “allowed me—allowed everybody—to really reflect on my own social position and my own perspectives, the way that I made sense of the world” and helped her realize “my own philosophical understanding of psychology.”
The newly minted doctors of psychology are now headed into the world to practice what they’ve learned. “We expect our graduates to deliver social justice work as socially responsible practitioners and to continue Alfred Adler’s work in supporting community health,” Crossman said. De Domenico, who is in the process of applying for licensure, has secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the DBT Centre of Vancouver. There she will continue more specialized training in dialectical behavior therapy, influenced by her internship. She remembers thinking to herself during her time with her clients, “This is so practical and validating and rewarding and useful across the board for people, regardless of their diagnosis—if they even have a diagnosis.”
Now that de Domenico is on the other side of her degree, her advice for future cohorts includes embracing the program’s community feeling. “Really invest in your relationships with your cohort and faculty because that is going to create an environment of safety from which you can really learn.” She said that was an unexpected part of the program, “that my cohort would be so influential on my learning process—and that there would be so much involved in terms of [learning] what kind of impact I wanted to have as a professional practicing psychologist.”